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3 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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The forgotten soldiers Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of Irish soldiers in the trenches

Irish soldiers in the trenches during World War One ©

The threat of civil conflict in Ireland in mid-1914 was defused when the unionist and nationalist leaders, Edward Carson and John Redmond, pledged their respective parties and paramilitary forces to support the Imperial war effort. Responding to Ulster Unionist pressure and urgently in need of men, the War Office created a division specifically for the Ulster Volunteer Force - the 36th Division: 30,000 of its members joined in the first wave of recruitment. However, English recruiting officers were reluctant to support the formation of Irish nationalist divisions, fearing they might return after the war, possibly in 1915, with military training and equipment. But thousands of Irish Volunteer Force members did join the predominantly catholic and nationalist 10th and 16th divisions.

The pattern of Irish recruitment was erratic. There was an initial surge but then the level declined sharply. Roughly as many enlisted in the first year of the war as in the remaining three years; just 12,000 volunteered in the eight months before the Easter Rising. The geographical distribution of enlistment and the religious make-up of the recruits were similarly uneven. Protestants came forward in greater numbers proportionately than Catholics. In Ulster, men of both faiths were more likely to join up than those from the rest of Ireland. Generally, urban areas returned more soldiers than rural.

For unionists and moderate nationalists, war provided an opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty, so earning Britain’s gratitude and hopefully influencing the terms of its post-war settlement of the Irish question. A further motivation for enlistment was economic necessity. That 16,000 had joined up in Dublin between August 1914 – December 1915, was related to the disruptive impact of war on the city’s industry.

The fall in recruitment began in 1915, which indicates that it was not solely due to the anti-English sentiment generated by the Rising. The slaughter on the Western Front was certainly a factor. Two of the Irish Divisions, the 36th and 16th, saw action at the Somme, whilst the 10th suffered heavy losses in Gallipoli in August 1915. Moreover, Irish troops in the British Army appear to have been treated with particular harshness in World War One. They constituted just two per cent of the membership of the force, yet they were the recipients of eight per cent (271) of all death sentences imposed by its courts-martial.

Enlistment levels were also influenced by the increasing prosperity of war-time Ireland – particularly its agriculture. Farmers were as well off by 1918-19 as at any time before the 1950s. But in any case, enthusiasm for the war was never as widespread in nationalist Ireland as the media, dominated by pro-war elements, suggested. There was a common perception that it was not Ireland’s affair.

Image of John Dillon at anti-conscription meeting in Co. Roscommon

Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon addresses an anti-conscription meeting at Ballaghadereen, Co. Roscommon ©

In total, about 206,000 men from Ireland served in the conflict, of whom some 30,000 died. These figures dwarfed the numbers who had fought and lost their lives at home, in the Rising and in the Anglo-Irish War. But the percentage of those of conscription age who served (10.7 per cent) was well below both the Scottish (26.9 per cent) and the English and Welsh figures (24.2 per cent). In mid-1916, Westminster therefore considered imposing conscription on Ireland, out of concern at the depleted Irish divisions and the growing resentment in England at the slackness of recruiting there. The acute shortage of troops on the Western Front prompted it to reconsider the issue in April-May 1918.

For Ulster unionists, the high casualty rate experienced by the 36th Division at the Somme did help earn them Britain’s gratitude and ensure that they would not be compelled to accept Dublin rule after the war. Meanwhile, the war-time experience of southern unionists had transformed their attitudes towards moderate nationalists. Having shared platforms with them at Irish recruitment meetings and fought alongside them at the front, they had lost by 1916 their earlier aversion to self-government for Ireland and had come to regard Redmond as a worthy and acceptable first premier.

This was not to be. When the Irish soldiers returned home from the trenches in 1918, it was to a country whose attitudes had by then undergone a transformation. The predominant mood amongst nationalists was one of deep bitterness towards England and of contempt for those who had served in its forces. The rebels who had died in Easter week had become the focus of their uncritical adulation. Outside Ulster, Ireland’s war veterans became the object of a sort of ‘national amnesia’, their contribution unrecognised and forgotten until a more recent generation.

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Image of Dr. Timothy Bowman Dr. Timothy Bowman, Research Fellow, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Keith Jeffery Keith Jeffery, Professor of Modern History, University of Ulster at Jordanstown
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Image of Jane Leonard Jane Leonard, Community History Curator, Ulster Museum, Belfast
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